Last year I did an mid-year analysis of the top 50 selling songs of 2010 thus far. I found that there was an increased use of the word “I” (and its derivatives) in relation to “you”. In fact, the variations of “I” were used nearly twice as much as the variations of “you”. I didn’t really have any historical data to back up whether or not this was an increasing trend or this was somewhat normal. A couple of pop music people I talked to suggested that this was the relative standard for the past few years.

A new report by Dr. Nathan DeWall and other psychologists suggest that this is actually a new trend in pop music. The New York Times just reported on the study which covered pop music from 1980 to 2007. The study found that in the last decade, there is a definite marked increase in narcissism in popular music. The words “I” and “me” are popping up more frequently, while “you” and “us” are in decline. The report also highlights an increase in the usage of words of hostility.

While they didn’t cover popular music from 2008 until 2010, my study from last year certainly confirms that narcissism is indeed alive and well in pop music. Why this is happening may be a combination of what these psychologists are finding alongside the technological trends. Two of the study’s co-authors published The Narcissism Epidemic two years ago and have certainly found this subject to be a growing trend in college age youth even before they saw it in pop music. A study conducted largely in the same time period points to this regular increase via a standardized test.

There is actually debate amongst these psychologists as to whether people are indeed becoming more narcissistic or if they are just more willing to say so. For you, the reader looking to make a hit song, that’s not even a concern. The facts are there pointing to hit songs being more about “me” than it is about “you”. Certainly the societal changes causing youth to act this way is a factor. With music, though, the environment in which one listens is also a component. In offices, people don’t listen to the same thing over one loudspeaker. They listen to individual music over headphones. Kids are not listening to the radio station that mom put on, they’re listening to an iPod in the back seat. More time spent in front of individual computers is leading to less group listening.

What one listens to and responds to generally is a byproduct of how they listen. If they are listening to music by themselves, songs about someone else or about a group of people sound odd. If you’re in isolation and are singing by yourself, songs about “me” are fitting. The decrease in these group listening experiences are responsible for songs in the 2nd or 3rd person.

Also worth noting is the increase in “partying” songs, which is a group activity. I’ll make an assumption that parties now make up a greater percentage of group listening experiences than they had before. Since the song that needs to fit this experience also needs to be successful in isolation to be profitable, they must carefully craft the song to fit both needs. Last year’s hit, “Tik Tok” by Ke$ha, does that rather succinctly. The first verse starts out with eight mentions of “I” variations. It then follows with four mentions of “Our” which, while acknowledging a group, is also possessive and certainly narcissistic in attitude against the broader song. However, once you reach the chorus, there’s only one “I” and one “we” mention in the entire refrain. The chorus is a more general statement about partying that feels strong in a group moment without fully defining the group for when the listener is alone. Overall, while the song appears to be about a group party, it’s really just about the singer allowing the song to exist in both worlds. Final counts:
“I” variations – 30
“We” variations – 16
“you” variations – 12

The data is clearly showing even with psychologists now. Successful music is generally narcissistic. If you’re going to be selfish enough to want to financially succeed in your music career, I guess you need to carry that over to the way you craft your songs.

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  1. Rachel Skaggs April 26, 2011 at 4:24 pm # Reply

    I think that the trend overall is toward a more “self-driven” existence. The fact that anyone can start a blog, have pages of biography or “about me” material, and expect people to care is as telling as the prevalence of self-centered lyrics. I would be interested to see the data over time as well. It would also be interesting to compare song lyric content (I, you, we, etc) with the song’s success.

    • admin April 26, 2011 at 4:43 pm # Reply

      I agree that the tools and environments we are in combine to this “self-driven” existence. Nice way of putting it. For song lyric content, there is a definite correlation with “I” songs and sales success today. The tough part is comparing “apples to apples” with the past because digital sales of singles didn’t exist to quantify so exactly. Though this new report comes probably about as close as we can get.

  2. Thomas Whitehead April 28, 2011 at 3:50 pm # Reply

    While I don’t disagree with the argument that a correlation is evident in the sales and apparent narcissism of pop songs today, it just makes me wonder how much of of the comparison between 1980 and now is actually viable. Yes, people are more involved in a personal listening environment now, but songs have always been written by someone, about something. Having said that, the “I” and “Me” is inevitable, and the numbers can only reflect what trends are popular at the time of the song’s release. In the NYT article, it was stated that there was a control for genre in testing, but I would argue that it is impossible to have a control in place solid enough to account for the change in style of music. When John Lennon and Stevie Wonder were on the Hot 100, pop culture wanted to hear about “love” and “sweetness” because of the popular style (and whatever environmental influences that may have caused it.)

    Now, trying to stick with the Ke$ha example (and style), Madonna’s “Material Girl” came out in the mid 1980′s and was relatively successful on the charts. Similar to “Tik Tok,” “Material Girl” begins the song with numerous references to “I” and “Me” only using “You” or “We” in the chorus. The total are:

    I: 10
    Me: 7
    We: 4
    You: 3

    Granted, the ratios are not the same and as mentioned above the quantification is difficult due to digital vs. physical sales, but the trend seems to be very similar.

    All I’m saying is that it is easy to draw a bullseye around a dart you’ve already thrown. I think a more valid study might be of the people actually writing the pop songs rather than the lyrics themselves.

    But what do I know?

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